An extract from Academy Street by Mary Costello: 1962 – Tess arrives in New York

Book club: ‘They looked at each other now. In the look was an acknowledgement, a declaration, an affirmation that everything was finally settled, and the lives being lived here were the right ones, the ideal lives’

LATE IN THE SUMMER of ‘62 Tess flew on a TWA flight from Shannon Airport to New York. Before she left that morning her father handed her a £50 note, and then shook her hand formally, awkwardly. Denis and Maeve, and Evelyn in a hat and pregnant again, sat into the car. As they drove away Tess looked back at the house, her eyes lingering on the upstairs windows, then out at the land. Halfway down the avenue, Denis stopped the car to get something from the boot. She turned her head to the lone ash tree among the beeches and saw, for the first time, a band of barbed wire embedded in the trunk, the flesh forced to grow over the spikes in pained little folds and swellings. Denis sat in and they drove on. How had she missed this before? Who had done it? This was Lohan land, a Lohan tree. So, a Lohan hand.

At the airport the summer wind gusted and blew Evelyn’s hat off and she ran after it, and they all laughed. This will be my memory, she thought. As they parted they threw holy water on her and she blessed herself. Denis looked down, his long arms hanging, and she remembered the injured ash again.

Before the take-off, she grew frantic. The plane roared down the runway and she bent her head. It was not flying she feared, but dying. When the wheels lifted and the plane began to climb she pressed her fingers to her ears. Then she remembered the date: 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, and her heart began to quell. God would not let a plane crash on Our Lady’s feast day. She began to fill up with trust, like a child newly assured. The roar of the engine eased and the plane levelled and in a while she opened her eyes. They were in upper Earth. They had broken through into the blue. Dazzling light. Glorious. For a moment all thoughts ceased and there was this: a glimpse, a proximity, a feeling of being a fraction of a second away from something pure and sublime, a hair’s breadth from the divine. And then it was gone, the clarity, the fleeting elation, and she looked up and saw the other passengers sitting there reading, sleeping or in quiet contemplation.

Claire’s husband, Peter, a tall handsome Irish-American, was waiting at Idlewild Airport. Shyly she climbed into his car and he whisked her up to Peekskill on the Hudson where they had taken a summer house. Everything was different – the highway, the sky, the distant forests. The vast country, green and clean and perfect. The trucks thundering past with huge chrome wheels and invisible drivers high up in cabs. For a while she forgot where she was. The trees are juniper, Peter said. His teeth were white and gleaming. Juniper, she said to herself. Beautiful word, beautiful trees. They stopped at a turnpike and paid a toll, just to use the road.


There, on the front lawn of a low-slung villa above the river, stood Claire, a small child at her feet, another one inside her. Unable to utter a word, they embraced. When they drew away, there were tears in each other’s eyes. Their aunt Molly was there, up from the city to welcome Tess, a large buoyant woman with a shock of white frizzy hair. They moved to the back yard. Later, Peter’s extended family came by and he lit the barbecue and poured drinks and everyone milled around the pool. Outside, on the street, big American cars floated by. In the hours and days that followed, Tess would sometimes look around at the kids and the cars and the pool, at the picture windows and the sun-drenched world she had tumbled into. Once or twice she remembered home, Evelyn’s hat and the injured ash. And then forgot them. In the evening the crickets sang. Peter came up behind Claire, stroked her back, gazed tenderly at her swollen belly. This is what he has done to her, Tess thought. This act of love, of sex, on her sister. In a book, once, she had come on the words fruit of my loins. She remembered the nights she had climbed into Claire’s bed and slept in her arms. They looked at each other now. In the look was an acknowledgement, a declaration, an affirmation that everything was finally settled, and the lives being lived here were the right ones, the ideal lives.

Slowly, in the months that followed, Tess tuned to the frequency of the city, to the accents and the street-grid and the subway, to the black faces on the sidewalk, the sirens at night, the five-and-ten-cent stores teeming with goods, and buildings that rose up daily from gaps in the streets. The new words too – pocket-book, meatloaf, lima beans, Jell-O. The taste of coffee, the clothes so lovely and cheap and slimfitting. The abundance of everything.

In September she started work at the Presbyterian Medical Hospital on East 68th Street, and in the early weeks walked the long corridors every day shadowing her seniors, pushing medicine carts, taking blood, listening, learning, delivering all that was expected of her as things came at her, and her heart beat hard. Unconsciously, she adjusted her accent to be understood, and altered her handwriting until it attained the grace and slant of American script. She sat by herself in the cafeteria. The pall of loneliness that accompanied her from her aunt’s apartment each morning and which was briefly eclipsed by her duties lowered itself again. At night in the apartment she studied for her nursing accreditation or sat in the living room with Molly and Molly’s other boarder – a German man in his sixties, named Fritz – with the fan whirring and I Love Lucy or The Jack Paar Show on TV. When the audience laughed, she felt herself apart, among strangers. Exhausted, homesick, she went to bed and recited the Rosary and afterwards lay tense and sleepless for a long time under a cotton sheet. She woke after what seemed like mere minutes to the squeal of a garbage truck on the street below and the vague anxiety that she always experienced at dawn brimming up again.

Fritz was a machinist in a factory downtown. In the apartment he fetched and fixed things and on Fridays carried home the shopping from the Safeway store on 183rd Street. On Saturday nights he and Molly sat in the living room, drinking – he, small shots, she, highballs of whiskey. On weekday evenings all three of them sat at the table and ate pot-roast or gammon steak and sweet potato. Afterwards Fritz and Tess washed up, and then Fritz tuned the radio to a jazz station for the night. One night as he turned the dial she caught a snatch of a song she recognised, and, in its beat, briefly forgot herself, until she became aware of Fritz’s eyes on her. The next evening he came in and handed her a box. ‘This is for you,’ he said, in his sad accent. Inside was a new transistor radio. The kettle on the stove began to sing. She saw the jets of flame underneath, their fragile blue beauty, and when she looked up at Fritz she was overcome by a memory of home and Mike Connolly.

One Saturday they rode a bus across the George Washington Bridge out to New Jersey for the christening of Claire’s new baby. Fritz carried bags with containers of fried chicken and bean salad and beer. Tess brought gifts for Claire’s little boy, Patrick, and the new baby, Elizabeth, named after their mother. Peter met them at the bus station and drove them to a street of houses with verandas and driveways and sloping lawns, the kind that had become familiar to Tess from TV.

Molly and Fritz took charge of the kitchen. Claire took Tess upstairs to see the new baby. The sight of the child moved her. She thought her a miracle. Out of Claire she had come, from Claire’s flesh and blood. So close to Tess’s own biology, the same blood coursing through her veins. The blood that binds us all, she thought, now and in the past. She looked down at the child, at the closed eyes. A clean slate, pure and unblemished. Not long born, not long out of the other realm.

There was a little whimper and then a cry and Claire lifted the child and began to nurse her. Tess went to leave but Claire whispered to stay. The blinds were down and a small lamp cast a pink glow in the room. She caught sight of Claire’s bare white breast and the engorged nipple directed into the child’s mouth.

‘I have to tell you something,’ Claire said. She did not look up. ‘We’re moving to California. Peter’s being transferred out there.’

There were footsteps on the landing, a child’s voice. Patrick pushed open the door. ‘You’ll come out and visit us, won’t you?’ Her hand, as she reached out to touch her son’s head, was trembling.

They drove to the church for the christening. In the afternoon, guests filled the house, the children running around. The adults mingled in the open-plan rooms and spilled out onto the back yard. At dusk they were getting a little drunk, laughing, leaning against walls. Tess stood apart, sipping a beer, keeping an eye on the pool, the children. She looked at her watch, added five hours. A map of America came to mind, the west coast, images from TV of wagon trains crossing wide open plains. Peter was talking to two men and a young woman, work colleagues. He was smoking a cigarette, holding a glass of wine. He leaned and bumped softly against the woman, and said something. The garden lights came on. Tess moved to a quiet corner. There were earthquakes in California. Her father’s brother had gone there years ago and never returned.

The young woman moved away from Peter, drifted in and out of other groups, touching men’s arms. Claire came out and stood with Tess, smiling. She seemed smaller, thinner. Then her eyes moved off and her smile waned. Tess turned and watched Peter stride across the yard and in one swift wordless movement he picked up the young woman and threw her in the pool.

In the city she felt the stir of anxiety on the streets, and day by day it entered her. On the TV, missiles, warheads, ships steaming towards Cuba. The end of the world. Fritz sat quiet and sombre. In the mornings she felt the foreboding, the impending doom, gigantic explosions and firestorms flashing across her mind. She thought of home, her father, Evelyn in a houseful of kids, danger floating close. No one was safe. One day she saw a rich woman emerge from a building, usher children into a taxi. Everywhere an exodus, people holding their breaths, looking at one another. As if we are all brothers and sisters, Tess thought. One night the president addressed the nation. She was mesmerised by his beauty, his pain, as if the words themselves afflicted him. Thank you and good night.

And then the ships turned back. We were all brought together in fear and mutual need, she wrote to her father, and now its passing has brought something else – hope, love – down on the streets. She had found a new language – this country had given her new ways to think and speak. One Saturday afternoon Fritz took her up to Loew’s Paradise Theatre in the Bronx. In the foyer was a fountain of Italian marble and, all over the walls, murals and hanging vines. In the dark theatre she sat deep in a velvet seat and when she looked up there was a moonlit sky above her, and stars twinkling and clouds passing by. A week later she returned to the Bronx and bought five dresses in a dress store, one lovelier than the other, because she could. She took the subway back down to 181st Street and walked out into the autumn sun and floated along the sidewalk, catching herself for a moment in that concentrated life.

Academy Street by Mary Costello is published by Canongate Books at £8.99

Book Club questions

Tess is searching for another layer to reality that might give meaning or substance to her life, Mary Costello wrote in her book club essay last week, and she does glimpse it at times – in nature and love and literature. And in memory too. Are there examples of this in the above extract?

How does the author convey a sense of the period, both in her characters and her settings?

The United States is known as the land of opportunity and plenty. What indications are there, though, that there is a downside too?

Next week: From the Irish Times archive